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A frigid November breeze rattled the branches of the chestnut trees lining a quiet street just off Massachusetts Avenue, in the heart of D.C.'s embassy district. It was late, well past midnight. The windows of the brick, Federal-style town house halfway down the street was shuttered and dark.
As far as most of the world knew, the elegant town house served as home to the offices of the president's special envoy. Only a handful of insiders were aware that the person appointed to the job of special envoy also served as director of OMEGA, an agency so secret that its operatives were activated only at the direction of the president.
One of those agents had just reported to the hightech Control Center, which was tucked behind impenetrable walls on the third floor of the town house. An urgent phone call from OMEGA's director had yanked him out of the arms of the very accommodating flight attendant he'd bumped into at D.C.'s Reagan National Airport earlier that evening.
Deke Griffin, code name Ace, was no stranger to airports. Or flight attendants. A former air force fighter pilot, he'd ruptured a blood vessel in his eye when he'd had to eject during the first Gulf War. The injury meant he couldn't pull Gs or fly high-performance jets any longer. But he could still fly the big heavies, which he did until he left the military to head his own aeronautical consulting service. Ace now jetted all over the world to advise developing countries on air safety.
The nomadic lifestyle suited him. As an added benefit, it provided a perfect cover for his covert OMEGA missions. He'd performed a good number of them over the years, but this one looked to be a real bitch. The political ramifications alone had Ace staring at his boss.
"Did I hear right?" he drawled in the West Texas twang that slipped into his voice at unguarded moments. "You're tellin' me we have an American tourist on the loose in Cairo."
"Supposed American tourist."
". Who may be the focus of a small but fanatic religious sect determined to oust the current Egyptian president by any means possible?"
"You heard right."
Nick Jensen, code name Lightning, shoved a hand through his sun-streaked hair. Usually so urbane in Brioni suits and Italian silk ties, he'd pulled on well-worn jeans and a warm turtleneck for this hurried trip to the Control Center. Like Ace, he'd been yanked out of bed by a phone call, this one from the president himself.
Ace knew Lightning had been thinking about turning over the reins of OMEGA so he could devote more time to his wife and young twins. Everyone at the agency hoped that day wouldn't come soon. Lightning didn't look anywhere close to retirement tonight, however. His jaw tight, he'd focused his formidable energy on the American tourist at the center of what could be a diplomatic nightmare for the United States. A quick click of a mouse brought up her passport photo on the Control Center's wall-size screen.
"Her name's Jacqueline Marie Thornton," Lightning related tersely. "Goes by Jaci. Age, twenty-nine. Marital status, single. Residence, Gainesville, Florida. Occupation, assistant research librarian at the University of Florida."
Ace leaned forward, his gaze intent. The woman in the photo hardly looked like a radical subversive out to overthrow a government. Her soft brown hair just brushed her shoulders. Her green eyes stared straight at the camera. A tentative half smile curved her full lips.
But Ace knew all too well that appearances could be very deceptive. He'd been burned once by a sweet young thing who promised more than she'd ever intended to give. He'd ended up having to face down two very angry fathers-hers and his own. He'd only been eighteen at the time, but the lesson he'd learned from that fiasco had seriously impacted his outlook on relationships with the opposite sex.
As a result, Ace now confined his extracurricular activities to females who played the game by the same rules he did. No starry-eyed romantics for him. No nesters itching for hearth and home. Just savvy, fun-loving women looking for nothing more than a few hours of companionship. Ace couldn't help wonder what category Jacqueline Thornton fell into.
"She arrived in Cairo yesterday morning and joined a group of fellow travelers at the airport, all part of a tour organized by the University of Florida for alums and employees," Lightning continued. "Eight days and nights exploring the mysteries of Egypt's past."
"How many of those days will the group be in Cairo?"
"Four more, including today. That should be enough time for you to get close to her and find out what she's up to. I'm thinking it won't hurt for you to tap into the resources of your friend, Colonel El Hassan."
Ace nodded. He'd known from the moment his boss mentioned Egypt why he'd been tagged for this op. He and Kahil El Hassan had gone through undergraduate pilot training together at Vance Air Force Base in Oklahoma. With little else to do in their off-duty hours, the two bachelors had cut a wide swath through the adjacent town's available females. He and Kahil had stayed in touch over the years, each visiting the other whenever they happened to be in close proximity. Kahil was now a colonel in the Egyptian Air Force. He was also deputy director of his country's elite Military Intelligence Division.
"What have we got that indicates this Jacqueline Thornton is involved in a plot to overthrow the Egyptian president?" Ace wanted to know.
"Less than twelve hours after she arrived in Cairo, her name popped in cell phone chatter being monitored by Egypt's counterterrorist agency." Lightning paused, and a dry note entered his narrative. "Seems this far-out religious sect I mentioned thinks she's a messenger sent by an ancient goddess."
"Evidently there are a scarab and some hieroglyphics involved. Also a legend handed down through the centuries."
"You're kidding, right?"
"I wish. We pulled together a dossier. You can read it on the flight to Cairo. We've got you on a 6:20 a.m. departure out of Dulles."
"In the meantime, we'll keep digging into Thornton's background," Lightning promised. "Rebel will act as your controller for this op. She's on her way in from Atlanta as we speak."
Ace gave a quick nod of approval. Victoria Talbot, code name Rebel, was relatively new to OMEGA but she, too, had once sported the silver wings of a United States Air Force pilot.
Word was she'd earned her call sign at the Air Force Academy, when she flatly refused to put up with some sadistic hazing that later got a whole bunch of academy officials, including the commanding general, fired. Her subsequent military training and the lethal tricks of the trade she'd picked up since joining OMEGA had quickly inducted her into the ranks of highly skilled operatives. Ace was more than pleased to have her working this op with him.
Along with his old friend. Thinking of the wild times he and El Hassan had shared, Ace extracted his cell phone from the case clipped to the waistband of his jeans.
"I'd better call Kahil and give him a heads-up."
The phone was no ordinary cell. It was sleek, super high tech and the brainchild of OMEGA's guru of all things electronic. Mackenzie Blair Jensen had cut back on her work for various government organizations since the birth of her twins. Except her work for OMEGA. Her ties to the agency went too deep, and the fact that she was married to its director kept her personally involved.
This particular Mackenzie-special was right out of a James Bond novel. It looked like an ordinary flip phone, but one touch of a key turned the user into a walking, talking biometric sourcebook. Sensors instantly verified the user's fingerprint and body heat signature. A built-in camera performed iris scans and facial recognition. A microchip-size voice synthesizer not only authenticated speech patterns but it analyzed them to determine if the speaker was under duress.
The phone also provided instant, encrypted satellite access for email, texting, GPS locator service, flight tracking, weather updates and more gee-whiz applications than a dozen iPhones cobbled together. Ace was still trying to figure out how to use half of them, but he knew enough to rouse his old buddy from sleep with one touch of a key.
"Kahil, you ugly bastard. I'm headed your way."
The long flight from D.C. to Cairo provided plenty of time for Ace to multitask.
His first order of business was a catnap to catch up on the sleep he'd forfeited to the sexy flight attendant. His second was to brush up on the Arabic he'd learned over the years from Kahil. Most of the phrases he'd picked up involved ordering beer or cursing at Cairo's kamikaze taxi drivers, but there were enough polite words sprinkled in there for him to order a meal and find his way around town. The rest of the flight he spent studying the dossier OMEGA had pulled together on this crazy legend. It made for some wild reading.
Supposedly, ancient tomb raiders had stolen a scarab from a small temple in the Valley of the Kings. The temple had been constructed by the legendary female pharaoh, Hatshepsut, and dedicated to Ma'at, the goddess of truth, justice, harmony, balance and cosmic order. For more than a thousand years, Ma'at's followers had waited for the scarab to reappear. The one who found it-they believed- would be a messenger sent from the goddess herself, heralding the need to restore order to a chaotic world.
Included in the dossier was a digitized photo of a statue now in the Cairo Museum. It depicted Ma'at in lapis lazuli and gold. She was seated on a throne holding an ankh in one hand. A headdress crowned by a towering ostrich feather circled her forehead.
The feather, the ancients believed, was used to weigh the heart of a dead person. If the scales balanced, it meant the deceased had followed Ma'at's forty-two principles for an orderly existence and his soul would pass into the afterlife. If not, the soul would be devoured by a demon, thus condemning the deceased to a final death.
Heavy stuff for a college librarian from Florida, Ace mused. He spent the last leg of the flight wondering just how the hell Jacqueline Marie Thornton had landed in the middle of a plot to restore Egypt to what some wild-eyed radicals believed was a natural cosmic order.
"Are you sure you want to do this, Jaci?"
Mrs. Grimes hovered a few feet away, facing the hoards of camel drivers who'd descended on their tour group the moment they'd exited their bus on the plateau overlooking the pyramids of Giza.
The late-afternoon sun blazed down on the noisy, gesticulating group and made Jaci glad she'd left her lightweight jacket on the bus. She was perfectly dressed for a camel ride in sneakers, loose-fitting slacks and a short-sleeved white blouse with jaunty safari tabs decorating the shoulders and pockets.
One driver proved more vocal and persistent than the others. Shoving his way to the front of the crowd, he practically dragged Jaci to his shaggy mount.
"This way, madam. This way."
The ends of his green-striped headdress flapped as he steered her toward a beast with a high saddle and a tasseled bridle. The guard from their bus followed them and so did the stalwart Mrs. Grimes. The retired teacher glanced at the other tourists struggling to climb aboard their chosen mounts and reiterated her concerns.
"My guidebook says to be careful," she worried aloud. "Some of these camel drivers are real rip-off artists."
Jaci had read that, too, but seeing the pyramids of Giza from the saddle of a camel topped her must-do list. She wasn't about to forego the experience.
"Here, miss." Sensing he had his customer on the hook, the doggedly persistent driver dragged off his headdress and plopped it on Jaci's forehead. "Now you are Bedouin."
Blinking, she adjusted the lopsided turban. The stained cloth reeked of sweat, human and otherwise. Resolutely, Jaci refused to even think about head lice. This was all part of the thrill of being in Egypt.
The three pyramids looming in the distance only heightened the exhilaration. This was what she'd scrimped and passed up pedicures for! This was what she'd dreamed about even before she'd joined her Thursday night Ancient Civilizations study group.
Eternal Egypt. Land of the pharaohs. Birthplace of a culture older than any other still in existence. Jaci could hardly believe she was finally here, seeing for herself the wonders she'd dreamed about for so long. She couldn't count the number of books she'd read, the hours of research she'd put into planning this trip.
No book or dry academic treatise could compare with the vibrant reality, however. The dust, the heat, the biting flies, the omnipresent and tenacious souvenir sellers none of them could dampen her soaring spirits.
"Will you take my picture when I climb aboard?"
Still dubious but willing to oblige, Mrs. Grimes accepted the digital camera Jaci fished out of her canvas tote. The silver-haired teacher snapped several pictures while the driver boosted his rider into the saddle. Once Jaci had settled herself comfortably, she grinned and waved at the camera.
Then her camel pushed up on its hind legs.
She grabbed the pommel just in time to stop herself from catapulting forward, right over the animal's head. Her smelly headdress slipped down and covered one eye. She managed to stay in the saddle somehow but came close to tumbling off again when the creature got one front leg under him. Or her. Who could tell?
Swaying from side to side, the ungainly creature rocked up. And up. And up. Jaci looked down, gulping at the distance to the hard-packed dirt, and hung on for dear life. As if mocking her fears, the driver leaped aboard his own mount and brought it to its feet with seemingly liquid grace.